Societal Mass: Why Harmful Things Stay On

Let me tell you two stories, one of lead and one of absinthe.

Even before there was gunpowder, there were strong indications that exposing ourselves to a lot of lead had severe side-effects.

But over the next millennia, lead has been added to makeup, gasoline, and paint. It’s also part of many manufacturing processes such as printing.

Even though people kept noticing a high correlation between death and exposure to lead, it was readily used to dilute wine, to manufacture pipes that carried drinking water, and was often added to face creams.

A millennia later, despite definite evidence from strong research, lead still crops up in all sorts of places despite its proven dangers. Lead is still added to paint to prevent cracking. It’s used to paint toys even though nontoxic options are available. Even the govt. didn’t ban rule fuel laced with lead until the 1980s in the USA.

The story of lead has a stark contrast with that of absinthe.

In the 1860s, absinthe became a wildly popular aperitif—an alcoholic drink taken before a meal to stimulate the appetite. Whole districts of Paris were said to have a faintly herbal smell of absinth in the evening between 5 and 6, a time that became known as l’heure verte (‘the green hour’).

But 50 years later absinthe was being compared to opium and being considered a major social ill. People were reporting hallucinations and permanent insanity. Doctors began to suspect that it was a poisonous drug.

In 1905 Switzerland, when a man killed his pregnant wife and two young daughters, after he had been drinking absinthe, the case was dubbed ‘the absinthe murders’ and the drink was outlawed completely there three years later. France followed in 1914.

Within 50 years absinthe was used, abused, and abandoned. Interestingly, subsequent tests have shown that much of the supposed effects of absinthe were nonsense. It was no worse than any other alcoholic drink of the same strength. Yet, despite being absolved of all responsibility, absinthe was outlawed and remains unobtainable in many liquor stores, whereas lead, known to be poisonous for over 2000 years is still being readily used. Why this difference?

Mass matters. Lead and absinthe had different societal masses. Lead had high penetration and performed a number of highly useful functions in multiple manufacturing processes. Absinthe got people drunk, not the best value-add for society.

The results of lead poisoning isn’t instant, and giving up using lead-based products would mean abstaining from using a lot of useful products. Also, the cost for retooling manufacturing systems that relied on lead is too high. Whereas absinthe stood on its own, and thus it would take far less effort to remove absinthe that it would take to remove lead.

This is part of the reason why the proof of something being harmful is not always enough to produce a change in behaviour. The inertia of a product, a habit, or an idea increases the longer it is around, harmful or not. Think cigarettes.

Sometimes it can seem monumentally frustrating when reliable information doesn’t seem to change an erroneous popular opinion, but the rule is: the longer a product has been used by a society, the more society mass it has racked up, and the harder it is to change to a new one, even if there are obvious benefits.

What is true for societies is also true for individuals. The effort required to change a habit is proportional to the length of time we’ve had it.

For example, we use the QWERTY keyboard despite more efficient keyboard layouts being available out there. Since we’ve put so much of efforts to learn this layout, it’s too much of friction to put additional effort on something that’s completely new.

As Shane Parrish writes, “Keeping things as they are requires almost no effort and involves little uncertainty.” This is why some products hang around for centuries, even when better and cheaper ones come on the market, why we stay at jobs we hate, and (almost) never change the religion we’re born with.

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